Iraq's new govt meets

AFP, Wednesday 22 Dec 2010

Iraq's new government convenes for the first time focusing on security and services

New Iraqi cabinet
The Iraqi new cabinet stands for an oath at the house of parliament in Baghdad 21 December 2010. (AP)

Iraq's new cabinet held its first meeting on Wednesday, a day after a parliamentary vote ended months of political deadlock, but now must address the public's real concerns -- security and services.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki "met this morning with his ministers to tell them that his three top priorities are security, public services, especially electricity, and relations with neighbouring countries," Ali Moussawi, an advisor to Maliki, told AFP.

In separate votes on Tuesday, parliament gave its approval to Maliki, three deputy prime ministers and 31 other cabinet ministers, as well as a government programme, and approved interim ministers for the remaining 10 cabinet posts.

But the ministries responsible for two of Maliki's three priorities -- security and electricity -- currently have only acting heads.

Maliki has assumed interim control of the ministries of defence, interior and national security, the ministries responsible for assuring security after the planned withdrawal by the end of 2011 of the roughly 50,000 US troops remaining in the country.

Maliki, who does not want to extend the US troop presence, can boast of a significant reduction in violence since he took power in 2006, but about 3,500 people have still be killed across the country this year.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been dealt significant blows.

But the organisation retains the capacity to carry out high-profile operations like the October 31 seizure of a Baghdad cathedral, which was claimed by Al-Qaeda front the Islamic State of Iraq and claimed the lives of 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel.

Seven years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, public services, especially electricity, remain in a deplorable state.

Draconian power rationing remains routine and sparked deadly protests during the summer as temperatures topped 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) across central and southern Iraq leaving those unable to afford private generators unable to air-condition homes or refrigerate food.

Those protests sparked the resignation of the then electricity minister and deputy prime minister Hussein Shahristani who as oil minister in the outgoing government took interim charge of the portfolio will continue to hold it on an acting basis until a permanent appointment has been made.

Power demand in Iraq stands at around 15,000 MW, but the country generates just 6,000 MW and imports a further 1,000 MW.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish former rebel who has been a permanent fixture in every government since the invasion, will take charge of Maliki's third priority of improving relations with neighbouring countries.

Doing so is likely to prove a challenge.

Relations with Syria have improved since a crisis over several months of 2009, when Baghdad accused Damascus of harbouring "terrorists."

But relations remain rocky with staunchly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, which campaigned strongly against Maliki winning a second term as prime minister because of his perceived close ties to Shiite Iran.

And a number of issues remain between Baghdad and Kuwait, which Iraq invaded in 1990 only to be expelled by an international coalition seven months later.

Iraq still pays five percent of revenues from its oil sales into a reparations fund for Kuwait, which is demanding that it pay another 22 billion dollars. Kuwait has already received about 13 billion dollars.

Of the 35 cabinet posts that have been finally distributed, Maliki's Shiite National Alliance bloc holds 19, the secular Iraqiya nine, the Kurdish Alliance four, and other smaller parties three.

There are 20 Shiites, 10 Sunnis, four Kurds, and one Christian in the cabinet as announced so far, according to an AFP count.

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